Sex workers deserve to eat well. And Meals4Heels delivers
I was 21 years old the first time I danced on stage naked for money. After a few months of full-service escorting, I had decided to try my hand at a “safer” avenue of sex work and got a gig at The Lusty Lady, a now defunct peep show in San Francisco. Unionized and worker-owned since 1997, the club had a reputation for empowerment, feminism, and inclusivity. It was those ideals that led me to audition during one of their open calls in early 2008, during the height of the recession.
Maintaining a healthy eating plan while dancing was an ongoing problem that I didn’t anticipate when I started dancing. I worked nights, usually the second shift between 5 p.m. and closing at midnight. Three or four times a week, I’d take the BART across the bay after my evening college classes, and then walk the 20 minutes uphill to the club. If I planned my day right, I packed something to eat during my half-hour, middle-of-the-night dinner break. Otherwise, I would have a few minutes to drop into a bodega and buy some ramen or a can of ravioli to warm up. On other days, if I had some extra cash on hand, I might roam the streets of North Beach until I found a taqueria or Chinese takeout spot with reasonable prices.
What I needed was something healthy and satisfying. I was burning hundreds of calories dancing, and needed energy. I couldn’t spend much per meal, and I couldn’t leave the club for long. What I needed, in the depths of recession-era San Francisco, was sustenance.
Nikeisah Newton, a chef in Portland, Oregon, has been working for the past two-and-a-half years to provide healthy meals to to the city’s sex worker community. Meals 4 Heals began as a late-night food delivery in early 2019, specializing in vegan and vegetarian bowls. It was Portland's — and quite possibly the nation’s, only meal delivery service that caters to sex worker and sex positive clientele.
Meals 4 Heels, like so many other mutual aid funds and initiatives for marginalized communities, began out of a necessity. Newton would deliver home-cooked meals to her then-girlfriend who was a full-time student and exotic dancer. Her partner’s co-workers began inquiring about receiving their own meals, which sparked Newton’s idea for a delivery service. Newton says that while Portland is known for its bars and strip clubs that serve greasy, late-night finger foods, much of it can be unhealthy and not the best option for people working physically taxing jobs
Exotic dancing is hard on your body. You’re on your feet, performing, walking around, and mingling. Just like any job that requires physical exertion, dancers need to make sure they’re consuming food that’s going to be both energizing and filling.
Newton calls her adopted home of Portland “strip city,” since it holds the title of most nudie bars per capita. “The clubs here have 90-something percent women working there. Knowing there are other avenues of sex work here in Portland, it just didn’t make sense that no one was providing food for this niche,” she says.
The menu, created with BIPOC sex workers in mind, consists of vibrant veggie and grain bowls, with nods to Black American food culture. The Magic City, for example, pairs black-eye pea fritters with vegan and gluten-free cornbread, atop a bed of braised collard greens. The whole thing is topped off with a scoop of chow-chow, a pickled relish commonly found on Southern dinner tables. “I chose kale and collard greens because they can sit longer than other lettuces,” explains Newton. “So, if they have to go hustle a dance or they just have to be on the floor, their meal's not going to fall apart or get soggy just because it's been sitting for a half an hour.”
Other aspects of the menu are especially tailored with erotic service providers in mind; garlic and onion are kept to a minimum, for instance. And while Newton is a meat-eater herself, the menu is strictly vegetarian and vegan, since “it’s just easier to digest late at night, or early in the morning.”
Meals 4 Heels was about a year into business when COVID-19 stopped the world in its tracks. The closure of Portland’snightlife venues forced Newton to look for other ways to support sex workers and the Portland community at large. The business received a $3,500 dollar grant from the MRG Foundation, a Portland area non-profit organization that funds businesses and ideas rooted in social justice.
“The grant helped M4H by providing payroll, covering rent at my commercial kitchen space, and allowing me to donate about $1,000 to local social-justice groups, and individuals in need,” Newton says. She also used part of the grant to put together a “heaux-listic” self-care kit, which is free to BIPOC sex workers in the US and Canada, and included wellness products from BIPOC-owned businesses.
Violeta Rubiani, director of programming at Seeding Justice (formally the MRG Foundation,) met Newton when she was hired to cater an event the organization was hosting. With Seeding Justice on a mission to amplify the work of BIPOC small businesses, a group largely overlooked, Newton and Meals 4 Heels caught their eye. The fact that Newton’s primary clients were sex workers was definitely a motivating factor when considering awarding their grants. “Sex work is at the intersection of pretty much every issue we care about. Race, gender, disability, poverty, healthcare, reproductive rights, overcriminalization, and labor issues,” says Rubiani.
This past May, Newton took the next step in her business, partnering with the non-profit Ecotrust, to open a brick-and-mortar location at The Redd on Salmon, a Portland-area event space. Now Meals 4 Heals is serving Portland’s lunchtime crowd, via a walk-up window, and Newton is confident she made the right choice for her partnership. “I’m excited to have this space and have a partnership that supports and wants to be allies with sex workers here in Portland.”
Despite the shift to daytime hours, late night delivery is still available, but those orders still haven't fully returned to pre-COVID numbers. Newton wants to do a marketing push to get back in the clubs and reintroduce herself to Portland's strip club community; many dancers she used to deliver to have been out of work for nearly a year or have begun pursuing other careers. “It's a lot more fun delivering to a club than the general public walking up to your window,” Newton says.
Newton hopes her success inspires people to, “bet on Black, pursue your dreams, remember sex work has always been real work, and to push trans and Black sex workers to the front of the line. Always.”